Chicago Sun-Times features Commentary by IRI Board Member

Putin fears hue and cry of Orange Revolution
Chicago Sun-Times
By Richard S. Williamson

Concerned by the spread of democracy and the contagion of color revolutions, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, is moving to restrict Russian civil society.

The march of freedom has advanced in Georgia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq and Kyrgyzstan. But the spread of democracy is not inevitable. There have been setbacks in Kazakstan, Azerbaijan and elsewhere.

President Putin fears the challenge from pluralism and democracy at home. Therefore, since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin has rolled back freedoms in Russia.

Putin’s government has launched a broad campaign to ensure that Russia’s corrupt autocracy survives. Independent national television stations have been taken over. Pro-western parties have been driven out of parliament. Business magnates who challenged Putin are prosecuted. And the popular election of governors has been eliminated. Now, in a step to further consolidate Putin’s power at home, an assault has been launched on Russia’s fragile civil society.

Putin’s allies are advancing a law in the Russian Duma that would restrict activities of human rights groups, organizations that promote democracy, and all other independent organizations in Russian civil society. The bill would force all foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations regardless of their funding source to re-register with the authorities, inviting greater scrutiny and possible abolition of any group deemed threatening to the Kremlin’s interests.

Alexi Ostrovsky, a sponsor of the legislation, clearly stated the bill’s intent. He told the newspaper Nezarismaya Gazeta that the new law “should help the government crack down on politically active NGOs that…might promote an Orange Revolution.”

The proposed law would drive most foreign NGOs out of Russia. It would be impossible for foundations such as the National Endowment on Democracy and the International Republican Institute to operate in Russia. And all Russian civic groups deemed suspicious by the authorities for any reason could be denied registration.

As recognized in various human rights documents and numerous international treaties to which Russia is a party, people have a right to associate with whomever they please, to organize and express their views. This is fundamental to a free, vibrant society.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the other day while in Kiev, nongovernmental organizations in Russia “are simply trying to help citizens to organize themselves better, to petition their government to make changes in the policies that affect their very lives. That is the essence of democracy.”

But it is that very “power to the people” that Putin’s Kremlin fears. The Kremlin is stripping away the people’s capacity to seek changes that affect their very lives. It appears the goal is not to threaten Russian democracy but to end it except for some hollow trappings in an effort to retain legitimacy for a Soviet style autocracy.

Moscow no longer is capital of the other global superpower. Its power has declined, its reach receded, its influence waned. Nonetheless it is a country of 145 million people with a vast Eurasian landmass, great reserves of oil and gas, a decaying but nonetheless threatening nuclear arsenal, and continuing aspirations to be a major global force. We ignore the retreat of freedom in Russia at our own peril.

The United States must stand with the people and against Putin’s latest assault on Russian freedoms. Faced with criticisms from America and Europe, Putin has said he’ll relax the planned crackdown on NGOs. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to support Russia’s civil society.

Russians living in freedom, in a pluralistic society, and sharing our values are our natural friends and enduring allies.

A corrupt autocracy seeking to roll back freedom, retrench and re-establish authoritarian rule will not be able to sustain stability at home nor be a friend on whom we can depend.

Richard S. Williamson is a former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations.

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